A People’s Alt-History: On the Fascinating Fiction of a Socialist US

Introduction

In terms of originality, the genre of alternate history is a creature of extremes. Whereas its amateur authors will often invent the most unique historical divergences in creating their scenario, the common expression of this genre is a cesspool of Southern victories and Nazi jackboots. While such imaginations are not inherently off-limits, their most popular examples leave much to be desired. Perhaps this is just an inherent function of the mainstream; a historical divergence can only be interesting if it is recognized as such, which means that the salience of alternate history is greatly dependent on the knowledge of its audience. Bold, flashy, and relatively unlikely scenarios are simply more likely to activate the public imagination. Thus, as long as our collective awareness is found wanting, alternate history will probably remain a niche genre.

With this in mind, the scenario I mean to discuss in this piece exists in the middle, bridging the gap between popular and amateur forms of the genre. Although its premise is quite basic, it is in the particular divergences that some real nuance might be expressed.  As spoiled by the title, the concept I’m speaking of is the imagination of Socialist United States. Among the many alternate histories I have read throughout the years, this trope has been a persistent favorite of mine. Part of this may be explained by my own political leanings: as an avowed anarchist, any history which leans to the Left is likely to be an improvement over the one I know at present. However, there is more to my appreciation as well, as I will try to point out in the following. After starting from a general definition of this scenario, I will explore the broad range of its most interesting examples. In this way, I hope to show the sheer diversity of meanings expressed within this single divergence, a function of the history and imagination involved. Then, in a follow-up to this piece, I will try to set out a new interpretation of this premise, using what I’ve learned to walk a novel path through these well-trod grounds. Now, with all that out of the way, let’s get this Party started.

Part One: Transparency (Glasnost)

In a manner most predictable, my analysis begins by defining its subject; what is it that makes a story into “Socialist US” alt-history? At first glance, the term seems to speak for itself: it describes all stories where the United States has somehow gone socialist. And honestly, that definition isn’t one I’m looking to dispute. Still, if we take a moment to consider these two components in turn, we’ll see that each of them introduces a nice mix of both limits and possibilities. Even their combination has its oddities. Together, they make for the source of the concept’s inspiration, and we’ll soon see how it fuels the examples of the next chapter.

So, let’s start at the end, and look at the ‘US’ part of the equation. The fact that these stories must concern the United States already tells us a lot about its situation in time and space. As great as America’s precolonial history is, this premise unfortunately presupposes the country of Washington, Jefferson, and the rest of the Founding Fathers. Technically, of course, we may not even need these specific figures to end up creating the United States of America. But their absence might change the resulting nation to an unrecognizable degree, and virtually all of the stories I will cite in this piece start their divergences long after the late 18th century.

Having said that, these works’ interpretations of the US and its history is not a uniform one. One brilliant aspect of alternate history narratives is that they can even affect those events which precede their initial divergence, as altered outcomes shift the way their causes are perceived. Case in point: a Socialist United States would likely differ in its interpretation of the American Independence War from the nationalistic reading we might be familiar with. In some worlds, the Founding Fathers may be seen as proto-revolutionaries, creating a flawed democracy that had to be perfected through Socialism. Other worlds may buck this trend towards romanticism and instead emphasize the Founders’ legacy of colonialism and slavery. This is just one example of how a divergence can change its own past, and it shows how complicated alternate history can be in its chronology. Instead of a simple flow from cause to effect, it is better to treat these stories holistically, as all-encompassing interventions into the course of history. Their ripples can be felt everywhere.

A bunch of white men fretting over political statements? Yeah, this is basically a DSA meeting.

This is how the genre can be said to relate to US history. At the same time, however, the setting of the United States also has an important impact on its spatial situation. Speaking geographically, it’s obvious that any imagined Socialist US would take up a large chunk of the North American continent. Less obvious, perhaps, is the idea that it might occupy territories that are foreign to the US of today. These could be conquests resulting from a different colonial or imperial era; the full annexation of the Philippines is one such option, as is the formal incorporation of Cuba. On a less dour note, there may be sympathetic revolutions that break out in neighboring countries, which then create a greater socialist union. While such efforts might ultimately result in the founding of some kind of world-state, that would diverge too sharply from our initial premise to be worth considering. In the end, the socialist government must still be recognizably ‘American’, whatever that means.

Of course, all of these hypothetical scenarios assume a more expansive state altogether. What is more probable, judging by the examples I use in the following, is that a Socialist United States will only take up a portion of its historical predecessor. The simple reason for this is that a state caught up in revolution tends to fall apart in the process. The USSR faced a long and brutal civil war before it could be properly founded, and even then it never retook all the lands of Old Russia. Similarly, a Socialist US would most probably consist of just a part of its former territory, even if it’s a plurality. Regions that are likely to secede include the West Coast, Texas, New England, and the South. These areas are either too far from the hotbeds of revolution to be easily taken, or else have some historic reason to try for independence in the absence of state control. Whatever may be the case, I’ve seen far too many of these ‘reduced’ Socialist Americas to think that their appearance is just a fluke.

Anyway, having started at the end of our premise, let us now turn back to its beginning and look at what the notion of ‘socialism’ might mean for this kind of alternate history. Unlike the contextual conditions of its geohistorical setting, this part of the equation has a direct impact on its narrative content. In other words, a Socialist US alternate history will be more immediately determined by its socialism than by its Americanness. This has several reasons, not the least of which being the nationality of author and audience. Anyone used to US culture will be more impressed by its socialist augmentation than by those elements they’re already familiar with. Then again, this begs the question: what is it about socialism that makes its influence so noteworthy?

This question of prominence isn’t an easy one to answer, if only because socialism itself is such a disputed term. Given our present concerns, the best way to define it is to follow the examples set out in the next section. As you will see, the ‘socialism’ of this narrative scenario is mostly a matter of historical inspiration. Instead of inventing a socialist ideology out of whole cloth, these stories generally rely on the actions and aspirations of real socialist movements, be they of a homegrown or international variety. This approach has several important effects, such as a tendency to portray state socialism as the ideological default. While this bias has some basis in history, where more anarchistic outcomes are relatively scarce, it can also lead to the unfortunate replication of anti-communist stereotypes. After all, if the reign of people like Stalin and Mao is taken to be the inevitable result of socialist government, then its application to a US context would be equally horrific. Luckily, this kind of conclusion is far from universal, and more nuanced approaches to socialist history have resulted in a far wider spectrum of storylines. From union democracies to cybernetic planning, the models of our own world can offer fertile ground for allohistorical speculation.   

With its general shape now clarified, we can begin to understand why socialism makes up the better part of our total premise. First, the classic image of socialism’s rise to power is that of a popular revolution, which in itself already presents a dramatic disruption of the status quo. Beyond that, the egalitarian aims of socialism will almost always require a drastic reshaping of society, with its social and economic institutions falling prey to the force of a utopian ideology. All of this represents an almost unimaginable transformation of daily life, creating lived experiences that can run from intense deprivation to the enjoyment of a better world. No country could be left the same after encountering such a movement. It is for this reason that the aspect of socialism determines the better part of this narrative type.

With all this said, there is still one last piece of our premise to consider: its totality. Only in the combination can we understand this scenario’s uniqueness. Without that, we might as well talk of any story that involves either the US or socialism. But what is it that makes a Socialist US so unique? Once again, we should look at the historical context, specifically at the relation between international socialism and US history. Even a cursory glance in this direction reveals the considerable animosity between American (mainstream) culture and socialism. In part, it was the overhyped peril of the Soviet bloc which drove US society to such heights of cultural enmity. Yet even before this wave of McCarthyism, the quashing of socialist organization had grown into a proud US tradition. From the Haymarket Affair to the Virginia Coal Wars, plentiful examples tell of the way in which leftist movements were crushed beneath the boot-heels of state and capital. All this to say that the notion of a Socialist United States is a potent one, one which might turn everything we know about this country on its head. To see how such potential could be realized, we’re now going to look at some real works of alternate history, focusing on the way they interpret socialism, the United States, and the shape of their combination. To the barricades!

“Are you now, or have you ever been, a writer of socialist alternate history?”

Part Two: Democratization (Demokratizatsiya)

As with any genre survey, the most important question at this point is where to begin. Of all the many examples to cite in the following, which ones should I address first? In trying to resolve this conundrum, I have settled on a structural approach, arranging these stories by the way they engage with their central premise. While it’s usually hard to discern the overall ‘purpose’ of a text, the necessary specificity of these works makes that work a little easier. All of these stories are looking to engage with the idea of a Socialist United States (hereafter abbreviated as SUS); they just have a different way of going about that. This diversity of form is exactly what I am looking to indicate. And so I can begin.

The first kind of SUS fiction I mean to discuss is also the one that may be easiest to comprehend. This type is defined by parallelism, the deliberate replication of real history in an alternate guise. The point here is not to diverge from history for its own sake, but rather to highlight some aspect of real history by placing it in a different context. In terms of SUS fiction, this parallelist approach usually takes the USSR as its template. There is an obvious irony to projecting the tendencies of Soviet history onto those of its main rival. Indeed, the sly comedy which arises from this transposition often seems to be the only reason for its existence. In terms of narrative sophistication, this kind is the equivalent of a parlor trick.

One example of this simple humorous tendency would be Back in the USSA, a short story collection by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman. Instead of concerning themselves with the plausibility of the given scenario, the reader is instead invited to deduce the intended parallelisms. The book’s strained attempt at one-to-one alt-history writing leads to such ridiculous outcomes as Al Capone becoming the leader of the titular USSA. After all, if a virtual gangster like Stalin came to rule the USSR, then why not have a literal gangster show up here? To appreciate such leaps in logic, you really have to leave your sense of realism at the door. While works like Back in the USSA may still be appreciated for their structural or literary qualities, any serious engagement with the idea of a Socialist US must necessarily be found elsewhere.  

That said, not all of these parallelist materials are as straightforward as a Soviet xerox, and they can certainly be more interesting than that. Even if one is wholly committed to the implausible, there is still the curious option of choosing a different socialist regime to crib from. The use of Chinese communist history is one such example I’ve found, and the specific scenario I have in mind has the fun quirk of using China’s language reforms as one of its many parallels. While the resulting experiment in simplifying English may not say much about socialism in the US, at least it highlights an interesting aspect about the PRC’s own history. In short timeline concepts like these, that kind of simple curiosity is more than sufficient.

Another facet of parallelist SUS fiction seems to take a specialist interest in the end of state socialist history. Over the years, I’ve noticed how the dramatic fall of the USSR has been used as a rich source of alt-historical inspiration. Many a superpower has fallen like the Soviets did, and this definitely includes some SUS examples. Once again, we find that some of these are mere carbon copies of the period that’s being paralleled. As such, the focus is more on retelling real history though decontextualization than on setting out a plausible alternative. While this is a perfectly valid aim in writing alternate history, it does not engage with our central premise too much. For an example of the latter, we can look to another story known as The Pale Horse: The Northwest Montana Insurgency and its Aftermath (1987-2002).

Trust me, this horrific urban siege is actually one of the cheerier events in this timeline.

As its title implies, The Pale Horse focuses on the history of a domestic insurrection, which in this case plagues a late-stage syndicalist US. In this, it clearly parallels such post-communist conflicts as the Chechen Wars and the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Even so, the author has still made sure to turn this setting into its own thing, transcending neat parallelisms in order to establish a greater whole. Yes, the varying rhythms of this timeline tell us something about the general dissolution of a socialist superpower. But the way in which these events unfold is also specific to its own conditions, to the corruption of a syndicalist society rather than a Marxist-Leninist one. While this may seem to lessen its overall applicability, what it’s actually teaching us is how history can be adapted in a more realistic fashion. Whatever parallels we take from it, these should still be justified on the basis of an altered context. Otherwise, the setting we end up creating will not be a genuine systemic narrative, but rather just the echo of something real. In the heroic attempt to write actual alternate history, I believe this insight to be paramount. It’s what carries us now, from the shores of parallelist fiction, to a far stranger land altogether.

Here we enter the realm of what I would call ‘conceptual’ SUS fiction, as it engages with the premise in its most abstract sense. The goal of these narratives is not to parallel real history, but rather to dwell on the very question of what a Socialist US would be like. This preoccupation with abstraction is also what makes it a relatively rare instance of the trope; it’s simply easier— and also more fun perhaps—to build off the familiar elements of history, be they parallelistic or contextual.

In spite of its rarity, I believe this conceptual variant is worth mentioning for two broad reasons. The first is that this type possesses the greatest narrative scope. For those who want a large degree of freedom in depicting the concepts of socialism, Americanism, and their confluence, there is no better strategy than this one. At their most radical extent, we could even consider works like Star Trek to be an example of this basic premise. While Gene Roddenberry’s grand franchise has always been hesitant about identifying itself with either socialism or the US specifically, the traces of both are clearly visible. In this way, a wide swathe of American science fiction could be treated as part of this tradition. If I were to trace it all the way back to its beginning, I would point to the wave of popular utopian literature which arose at the end of the 19th century. Among the works of Bellamy and Morris, we can recognize the seeds of a genre that had not yet begun to be alternate history. Thus, if we are to appreciate the potential of a Socialist America in the abstract, with the full scope of narrative potential which this implies, then this ongoing tradition of utopian science fiction should be a key point of inspiration.

“The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We’re too busy LARPing for any of that.”

At the same time, however, these utopian antecedents also contain the second aspect of conceptual SUS fiction. This is the capacity for analytical rigor, which paradoxically coexists with the aforementioned freedom of the narrative. Even as we are free to develop radically different kinds of Socialist Americas, we are also called to wonder what the boundaries of this premise even are. Absent any specific historical determinations, how can we really tell whether a given scenario accords with our idea of a Socialist United States? All the abstract questions of the first part will have their greatest impact here.

In their dialectical combination, these two tendencies of conceptual SUS fiction played a role in the work I would cite as its primary example: Rebecca Stirling’s The People Have Spoken: An Atlas of an Alternate Socialist World. As the name suggests, this work is meant to represent a political and historical atlas of the world it is set in. Because the setting diverges some time after the American Civil War, many of its characters are wholly fictional by the time the actual socialist revolution comes about. The new country’s leaders are particularly imaginary, having little resemblance to the historical celebrities of socialism beyond the obvious traits of revolutionary leadership. Under their guidance, the so-called UASR develops along a divergent but still recognizably state socialist line. In keeping with its conceptual approach, the things we may recognize from real American or socialist history are general patterns rather than specific parallels. For instance, the UASR in its present day is still governed by a two-party system, albeit one of socialists and communists rather than Republicans and Democrats. Similarly, its socialist revolution did not undo the ongoing legacy of colonialism in this territory, and the reign of a particularly racist leader remains a dark stain on the UASR’s legacy. Finally, its main expression of state socialist history can be found in the constant tension between orthodoxy and reform, a conflict which also marked the USSR until its sordid end. What all these features indicate in total is an embrace of both speculative worldbuilding and historical engagement. If any work can be said to represent a baseline, streamlined kind of SUS fiction, it would be this one.

You know the government has messed up when even the liberals start seceding.

With this variation on the genre resolved, I would now turn to the third and final kind of SUS fiction that I would like to codify. After the parallelistic and the conceptual, this type is best regarded as contextual. It’s the kind of narrative which works from what it’s got, deriving the possibility for a Socialist America from the historical ingredients at its disposal. Contrary to what the stereotypes would suggest, there is no necessary incompatibility between US culture and the politics of socialism. Any such suggestion would run up against the considerable struggle of leftist organizations throughout US history, from old labor stalwarts like the IWW and SPA to New Left movements such as SDS and the Black Panther Party to even the present-day activities of social ecologists and the DSA. While this trajectory has been fraught with failures to say the least, that does not diminish the genuine socialist ferment which founds all these developments. Any contextual approach to Socialist US fiction would have to reckon with this history.

The first timeline I would like to discuss in this context is Reds! Much like the movie of the same name, this story starts out in the early 20th century, exploring the trials and tribulations of that era’s socialists. Thanks to an initial divergence in the late 1890s, the US socialist movement is able to cohere somewhat better than it did in our history; thus, when the continued survival of president William McKinley smothers the Progressive Era in its crib, the Socialist Labor Party is able to profit off the resulting turmoil with considerable success. After these early developments, an early US entry into WWI provides another major opportunity for social radicalization: in the muddy trenches of Northern France, many a soldier will experience the cruelty of imperialism first-hand. Taken together, the stage is set for a revolution in the early 1930s, spurred on by the economic dislocation of the Great Depression. What results from all this is the so-called “Union of American Socialist Republics”, a Marxist-DeLeonist superpower and leading member of the Comintern. Together with their Soviet and Chinese allies, they will face off against the world’s imperialist powers, with the Franco-British Union serving as their main adversary. In the timeline’s present day, this cold war between capitalist and socialist democracy is yet ongoing, although the latter seems increasingly victorious.

From a critical perspective, Reds! may be considered the platonic ideal of SUS fiction. As one of the earliest and most prominent SUS narratives in the online alternate history sphere, its quality and influence are both undeniable. Over the course of many rewrites and spinoffs, its setting material has been refined and expanded to an impressive degree. Not only is most of its worldbuilding quite plausible, but reading it will give one a solid impression of the overall history of American socialism. If you would only read one of the stories I’ve mentioned so far, then Reds! seems like the obvious choice.

Naturally, the first thing you do upon taking power is rename the capital. I can’t wait to found Moontopia!

However, this does not mean that it is free from criticism. When placed within my analytical framework, it becomes clear that Reds! tends to escape its contextual confines in order to hew closer to a parallelistic style. Beyond the way that global history is mostly unaffected until the Red May Revolution of 1933, there is also the oddity of real-world people and works of pop culture appearing long after the initial divergence. Of course, whether this is a flaw or not depends on one’s point of view. Parallelisms of this kind can be a way to show difference through similarity, and to enjoy the humorous irony of seeing rapturous works of socialist history penned by an alternate Sean Hannity.

Along with this parallelistic tendency, Reds! also attends to the conceptual potential of a SUS scenario. From what I can tell, the goal here is to render a Left Communist orthodoxy in its purest form. As a result, the many legal and political documents which appear throughout this narrative can look like the author’s ideological manifesto as much as they embody an in-universe perspective. We could say much the same thing about the way the revolution unfolds, as parts of it may strike one as a little too aligned with Marxist theory. Again, whether these aspects represent a drawback is a matter of opinion; the ideological shaping of this timeline could be read as either elegant or artificial. Personally, I think its unique combination of themes and techniques makes Reds! into an interesting narrative. While it has clearly inspired many other SUS timelines, none are exactly like it.

Beyond the example set out by Reds!, we find several works which try to explore the same narrative space. All of these timelines develop a homegrown revolution from the historical socialist movement of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Their diverse approach to this premise can result in such odd outings as a graphical exploration of the nation’s ‘proletarian presidents’, or else a focus on the culinary palette of a more isolated socialist US. In historical terms, these works elaborate on the lineage of people like Debs and Deleon, thus focusing on the rise of organizations like the SPA or IWW. Whether their divergences start early or late, the resulting regime generally takes the form of a federated worker’s democracy, a tangle of unions and elections which is arguably more free and equal than its capitalist counterpart.

In this context, I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the more famous examples of this tendency, that being the “Combined Syndicates of America” which rise up in the long-running Kaiserreich modification of the Hearts of Iron grand strategy franchise. I actually alluded to this setting earlier in talking about The Pale Horse, as this story takes the Kaiserreich world as its outset. Anyway, although the name of the Combined Syndicates is an atrocious attempt at path for the US socialist movement. My only issue would be with the presence of pseudo-Stalinist ‘Totalists’, whose potential takeover is more like a diabolus ex machina than anything this setting would likely result in. If American syndicalism were to be corrupted, it would happen in the gradual manner of The Pale Horse, not by suddenly veering into dystopian territory. Slow and steady wins the race to the bottom.

“Well, Earl, time to do what we do best: betray the revolution!”

So much for the revolutionary line of contextual SUS scenarios. Getting the socialists of yesteryear to rebel does seem like the simplest way to end up with a radically leftist United States. However, it is not the only way. One recent trend has taken an entirely different tack to achieving this outcome. Focusing mostly on US electoral history, this path supposes that the Overton Window of establishment politics might be shifted decisively to the Left. Exploring the space between Reform and Revolution, these works test the very meaning of a Socialist US: is it enough to just put a worker’s party in charge of the existing state?

One example of this electoral tendency would be Crimson Banners Fly, which lays out an incredibly detailed political history on the basis of a chaotic multiparty struggle in the early 1900s. One of the parties involved is the Socialist Party of America, which goes on to take the presidency in 1920 thanks to a divided electorate and an unpopular US victory in World War One. While the timeline has paused at this point, it continuation will be sure to involve great social upheaval as the socialists try to consolidate their power throughout the “Turbulent Twenties”.

Another prominent story along these lines is Ruins of an American Party System. Much as its title suggests, this timeline focuses on the total ruination of the existing two-party system, starting from a greater Democratic failure in 1920. Along the way, both new and existing political parties undergo a collective paradigm shift, resulting in the kind of progressive electoral coalition that would make common cause with the USSR. As a contemporary riff on this scenario shows, such bizarre developments could result in a radically different political spectrum by the present day, one where a party’s position on the US-Soviet alliance can be a matter of serious dispute.

This is just about the only world where tankies can get elected to Congress.

Thus for the electoral circus. Given all the timelines I’ve discussed so far, a great lacuna may have become obvious for those who would consider the broad course of US history. For yes, none of these works really address any postwar developments in American leftism. Insofar as socialism is given a place in US history, it seems to exist solely outside of living memory, in those mysterious days before the Cold War. But this ignores the many interesting and occasionally powerful movements which sprung up around such issues as Black Power, Indigenous sovereignty, and Social Ecology. If the contemporaneous turmoil of countries like France and Italy is any indication, then there is nothing about the “First World” that would exclude the potential for social revolution. And yet, such issues do not see much attention in any of the works I’ve mentioned, at least not in their specific postwar formulation.

However, this lacking is something which could potentially be rectified. As some of you may have noticed, the subheadings I’ve used so far have each made reference to one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s famous reform initiatives. The even more eagle-eyed among you would have noted that his most prominent program is yet absent: the grand notion of Restructuring, better known as Perestroika. It is this title which represents the third part of this essay, in which I will attempt to lay out my own version of this oh-so-variable premise. Because this would take up more space in this already considerable piece, and because I have yet to develop several of its core aspects, I will leave this task to a prospective sequel.

For now, I merely hope that the given essay has provided a clear framework by which to study the endlessly intriguing concept of a Socialist United States. Many of the stories I’ve mentioned are still being written, and I expect that many more will be created in the future. If my analysis has inspired to read any of these works, or if you’ve even been inspired to write such a history yourself, my work here will be more than complete. Except for the part that isn’t done yet, of course. I’m working on it!

Pictured: Pete Seeger entertains President Wallace on his flight into exile, 1940. To be continued?

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